LOS ANGELES, CA — With three backflips culminating in the splits, UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi captivated the crowd at the Under Armour’s 2019 Collegiate Challenge, earned a perfect 10 score, and made the internet fall in love with her.
But it wasn’t just her impossible and technical perfection that won over so many hearts this week. It was her spunk and her backstory: she dedicated her life to gymnastics, dominated her sport and let it break her before getting back up again and rediscovering her self-worth. And it was her palpable joy that helped her bring her team to victory with a perfect floor routine. As she flips and dances to a medley of Tina Turner and The Jackson 5, her huge smile is infecting the crowd, which goes wild for every split, backflip and shimmy.
Though she’s competed with and often outshone some of America’s greatest gymnasts, she’s not vying for a spot on the national team. As she explained to The Players’ Tribune, somewhere along the way, the sport that was her world left her broken.
“There was a time when I was on top of the world, an Olympic hopeful. I was unbeatable until I wasn’t,” she said.
She was sidelined by serious injuries after competing with fractured bones, and she had back surgery over the summer. She was traumatized by criticism of her body and her performance.
“I was broken,” she told the Tribune. “I was told that it was embarrassing how big I’d become. I was compared to a bird that couldn’t fly…I couldn’t accept myself. Gymnastics was my worth. It was my life.”
Still, she didn’t quit. She left elite competition, and decided to perform at the college level. At UCLA, she found acceptance, and she rekindled her love for the sport that first captivated her when she was just three years old.
“That’s all it took to really feel like a person again. I think gymnastics can be a very brutal sport, but i don’t think it has to be a brutal sport,” she said. “I haven’t been able to feel this type of happiness in a long time. I found my joy, my voice and myself and my love for the sport.”
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